Friday, January 16, 2015

"Belzhar": An almost great YA book

The entire concept of Meg Wolitzer's latest foray into the world of YA literature intrigued me.  Five students are hand chosen for a mysterious and life changing course called "Special Topics in English" taught by the highly regarded Mrs. Quenell. These aren't any ordinary students and this is no ordinary school; they attend The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic high school in rural Vermont for emotionally fragile and highly intelligent students. On the first day of Special Topics in English the five specially selected students gather in class and Mrs. Quenell tells them that they will only study the life and works of Sylvia Plath, the queen of adolescent angst and blinding depression.  Each student is given an ancient journal, and what each student finds out in turn is that when they write in their journals they are  transported to a time where their lives were less stressful and free of the trauma that led them to The Wooden Barn.  The five students secretly meet and come up with the name "Belzhar" (get it Bell Jar?) to talk about where they go when they write in their journals.

It sounds cool, right? Well, it was . . . mostly really good.

I read Wolitzer's highly acclaimed "The Interestings" last year and felt lukewarm about it.  It was long, murky and each of the so called interesting characters turned out to be sad and depressed for different reasons.  This book held promise and because the students are at a school for mostly depressed students, there is no false hope that they aren't already damaged by the misery that life forces on you at times.  The narrative voice, Jam Gallahue, kept me interested from the very first chapter when she explains that her London exchange student boyfriend, Reeve's death, was the reason she ended up at The Wooden Barn.  She seemed fragile, but competent, and after suffering from the loss of true love with a truly original boy, who wouldn't be fragile?  The other students in the class: Sierra Stokes (a beautiful dancer), Marc Sonnenfeld (an overachiever who always wants to follow the rules and do the right thing), Griffin Foley (a moody farm boy who hides behind his hair and hoody), and Casey Cramer (a socialite who is wheelchair bound after a car accident)  have trauma in their lives, too and each disclose their stories as the novel unfolds.

What I liked about this book is the concept.  I love that the writing really matters in Mrs. Quenell's class, and that each student is treated as highly competent vs. highly fragile.  When the students balk about writing regularly in the journals, Mrs. Quenell firmly tells them, "Everyone has something to say.  But not everyone can bear to say it.  Your job is to find a way." The idea of writing as therapy is not just appealing to me, but the reality that I lived for 15 years as I watched my students write their way free of past and present painful experiences and discover their worth and strength as individuals in their words.  Maybe it's just the past English teacher in me, but I wanted to know more about Mrs. Quenell.  Wolitzer doesn't spend enough time developing her, and at times she seemed like a throw away character vs. the inspirational teachers of past YA classics like Mr. Keating in Dead Poet's Society (oh, Robin Williams.  The sad irony of that film still pokes holes in my heart today).

I also loved the idea that each of these students had to travel to the past to understand their emotional pain (and break free of it) in the present.  How tempting would it be to stay in a world where we didn't have to deal with our most traumatic moments and ordeals? But, as Jam finds out in her Belzhar, no advancements or progress can be made in that world.  It is stress free and happy, but no future exists there.

Just like in "The Interestings," Wolitzer assembles an interesting cast of characters who each read like real people.  There is a Breakfast Club type quality about them as they sneak away to their weekly meetings and talk about their experiences in Belzhar and their fears about what happens when the journal is full.

Maybe the biggest let down for me was the truth of Jam's story at the end.  I don't know why, but it made me mad and sad all at once.  I think about all the hopeful young adults out there that get stuck in emotions and allow them to take over their lives to the point of obsession and mental breakdowns. Even with my background teaching and dealing with teenagers and teen angst every single day, Jam's story hurt to read.

There are big questions posed here like how do we deal with grief and how to we continue on after the inevitable tragedies of life occur? There is an even bigger question about reality and what we choose to view as the truth. Wolitzer doesn't dive into these questions, though, with enough conviction to lend them weight.  Maybe if there had been more about Sylvia Plath's life and work and more parallels to her?

I'm not sure what would have made this semi-good YA book really great. I did read it in one day, and Wolitzer kept my attention the whole time.  I know that young teenage girls would love it, and it might even get them interested enough to read more Sylvia Plath which would be a great thing.

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